SCIENCE     versus     MATERIALISM

by     Reginald O. Kapp

SECTION II - DOUBLE DETERMINATENESS

Chapter XI - IS MATTER HELPFUL?


REALIZING that purpose in the organic world is too obvious to be denied, followers of those more recent schools said to have superseded mechanism, have attempted to save materialism with another equally desperate theory. They cannot bring themselves to admit that the structure and behaviour of living organisms are more determinate than anything in the inorganic world. So they declare that in this world, too, the course of events is determined partly by the requirement that things shall serve a purpose. They adopt a teleology as all-embracing as any to be found among theologians.

This theory is concisely expressed though not supported by E. S. Russell in his book Form and Function on page 180, where he presents the views of Schwann: "True," he writes, "the purposiveness of living processes cannot be denied; but its ground lies according to this (the materialistic) view, not in a vital force which guides and makes the individual life but in the original creation and collocation of matter according to a rational plan. The purposiveness of life is part of the purposiveness of the universe." The same universal teleology is found in the philosophy of the late J. S. Haldane and we have come across it in other less distinguished writers. It seems to have begun to permeate the thought of biologist-philosophers.

While this teleology looks very much like that adopted by many theologians the explanation given for it is different.

The theologians attribute the purposiveness they see in the Universe to a non-material deity, whereas Schwann, Haldane and other biologists have attributed it to Matter alone. They believe that it is in the nature of Matter unaided to produce structures and behaviour which serve some purpose.

We engineers may well wish they were right. We could then save a great deal of time and money. If it really were in the nature of Matter unaided to meet the requirements of the labyrinthine organ, surely it would also be in its nature to meet the comparatively simple requirements of the governor of a steam engine. We should be misguided when we laid down expensive assembly shops and paid away high wages to fitters and foremen. Instead of interfering with Matter as we do, we ought to allow it to follow its own nature. Perhaps it would then assemble itself into better governors than our clumsy methods can devise!

Of course, we shall be told that we are too literal minded and that no biologist-philosopher would attribute to Matter everywhere and at all times the skill and accomplishment which go to the making of a labyrinthine organ. Maybe adherents of this form of teleology think that Matter can only achieve this difficult task when it enters the organic world and that the purposiveness of the Universe is manifested in different ways in the inorganic world.

But if we misinterpret the biologist-philosophers it is not for lack of an effort on our part to understand them nor for lack of a diligent search for a statement in sufficiently concrete and specific terms to make their meaning clear. If they had provided examples to show how in the inorganic world the purposiveness of the Universe is manifest it would help their readers considerably. But such illustrations as might lead to clarity are always lacking. Instead, we have to make the best we can of general and rather abstract statements. Once again we are in the distasteful position of having to guess at what may be meant, only to find that each possible interpretation is too absurd to merit serious consideration.

We regret the necessity all the more because we are bound to create the impression that we are "thrashing the donkey overlong". However (if we be allowed to continue the metaphor) we should remember the proverbial character of the animal. Materialist philosophies are held with great obstinacy. We should also recall that this particular donkey does not carry on its back the philosophies of nonentities, but those of men of high eminence in their own fields of study. New theories wherewith to justify materialism have been coming along thick and fast in recent years. If we did not deal faithfully with every possible interpretation of each of them we should not complete the task which we have set ourselves.

We have now before us the theory that the whole Universe is purposive, that this purposiveness arises from the nature of Matter alone and that it explains the preservation of the living individual and its species. Before we give our reasons for rejecting this theory we must seek to understand in what ways purposiveness is supposed to be displayed by substance which is not alive.

Possibly Professor H. Levy provides a clue. In The Web of Thought and Action he says on page 161: "We tend falsely to isolate the individual and the environment as if they were separate entities, when, in fact, they are intimately interconnected." Levy and followers of the same school cannot mean that we tend falsely to deny that the individual depends on its environment for food and shelter, or that we tend to deny that evolution constitutes adaptation to environment, or that we tend to deny that in building nests and constructing burrows individuals influence their environment. For no one denies that there is this sort of interconnection. If Levy meant to say anything worth saying, it must be that the interconnection between the individual and the environment is more intimate than is commonly supposed, so intimate that it is wrong to isolate the one from the other.

The late J. S. Haldane expressed a very similar view in his various books. In The Philosophy of a Biologist he said: "The maintenance of co-ordination is present, just as much in the relation between organism and environment as in the relation between the parts of an organism itself. We cannot separate in space the phenomena of Life itself from those of its environment." In a Symposium before the Aristotelian Society on "Life and Finite Individuality", again he said: "Practically, therefore, we must look upon organism and environment as one interconnected whole, which, as a matter of empirical fact, tends to maintain itself, just as a crystal and its mother-liquor do, or a molecule and the solution in which it has formed." Professor Levy would, no doubt, also claim that his views about the helpfulness of Matter are not fancy but "a matter of empirical fact".

In the same Symposium, D'Arcy W. Thompson too expressed much the same view. Speaking of the way an organism comes to be preserved he said: "When the parent tissues have ceased to nourish it, it is not left alone. All the forces of nature impinge and react upon it, together they nourish it; they mould it and conform it; the sun shines upon it; the air bathes it; it is a mechanism, but only part of a greater mechanism, and the mechanism of which it is a portion is the world." Levy's view that people have falsely tended to isolate the individual and the environment has clearly been shared by other eminent authorities.

At least until quite recently a Darwinian would have found good reasons for isolating the individual from. the environment. He would, for instance, have said that the things which the individual does were purposive and that the things which the environment does were not purposive. Before the advent of what we will call "the new teleology", it was universally accepted that the individual makes an effort to preserve its life while the environment does not collaborate in any way. If the individual and the environment were so intimately connected that the one could not be isolated from the other it would be true, among other things, that in meeting the purposes of self-preservation and race-preservation each had an equal share. The new teleology is best described as biocentric.

We know of no recent discovery, of no "matter of empirical fact" in any science which suggests that the individual and the environment are more intimately interconnected than was previously supposed. It appears that all biologists isolated the one from the other quite happily until it occurred to some of them that this isolation was incompatible with materialism. This seems to be the one and only justification for the theory that there is a purposiveness in the whole Universe directed to keeping the individual alive and maintaining the species. The theory seems to be based on faith and not on facts. We can think of innumerable instances where the behaviour of the individual is determined by the need to keep itself alive. But we can think of no instances where the behaviour of the environment is determined by the need to keep the individual alive.

An animal may travel a distance in order to obtain food. But the food does not travel a distance in order to reach the animal. A drop of water in a puddle certainly obeys the laws of physics and chemistry. But it does not also obey any law by which it is required to quench the thirst of a chicken. But the chicken does obey such a law when it seeks and drinks the drop of water. When we find a bird's nest we do not say that it is due to what the twigs have done. We know it is due only to what the birds have done. It is in the nature of the individual to help itself, but it is not in the nature of the environment to help itself, or to help the individual, or to help anything at all for that matter. It is obvious to us all that every living thing has some mastery over its environment while every lifeless thing can never be thought of otherwise than at the mercy of its environment. In this sense things belonging to the organic world can be described as active and those belonging to the inorganic world as passive.

For these reasons the common man has no doubt that the specific behaviour of the individual is sufficient to isolate it from the environment. Our most "up-to-date" biologist-philosophers alone say that he is wrong to think so. What these say is exactly what Walt Disney pretends in his animated cartoons. If in a "Silly Symphony" showing birds building a nest the twigs were represented as becoming helpful we should laugh at the absurdity. The best Disney joke is always the assumption of a bio-centric teleology, the suggestion that the lifeless environment becomes active and assumes mastery, the representation of an intimate interconnection between the individual and the environment. Do our latest biologist-philosophers believe that Walt Disney portrays the higher truth?

We do not want merely to set up a dummy in order to knock it down. We want to understand what the eminent biologists mean who talk of the purposiveness of the Universe and the impossibility of isolating the individual from the environment, and we want to do justice to their real theories and not only to what we may erroneously think that they mean. So, having failed to find a plausible illustration in the printed word we once again had recourse to conversation. We asked a biologist friend who inclines towards the bio-centric teleology what it constitutes.

He explained that we had misinterpreted this theory. We had been wrong, he said, in supposing that the purposiveness of the Universe is manifest in the behaviour of lifeless substance. He said that we could detect it only in the immutable laws of physics and chemistry, and the properties of Matter.

As an example, he mentioned the temperature at which water has its greatest density. This is 4O C. The result, he pointed out, is that in a lake the water which is just cold enough to freeze floats on that which is a little warmer. Ice first forms on the surface and provides a blanket which retards further freezing. This allows the bulk of the water to remain liquid even during a severe winter. Were water, like most liquids, to become denser right down to the temperature of solidification, lakes would freeze quickly and from the bottom upwards. During every cold spell aqueous plants and fish would be entombed in sohd ice. Freshwater life as we know it could not exist outside the tropics.

We had met this view before. Those preachers express it who say that the purpose of the sun is to give us heat and light and that, for the occasion when the sun is not shining, a moon has been provided; who tell us that in the earth's atmosphere oxygen is diluted with exactly that proportion of nitrogen which makes the air most fit for breathing; who declared in more boisterous times that certain oak-trees possess a cork bark to enable port to be bottled adequately. This is a milder form of teleology than that portrayed in a Walt Disney cartoon. For it declares that the purposiveness of the Universe goes no further than to provide those laws and properties of Matter which make for a world fit for organisms to live in. We cannot conceive how those who speak of purpose in the inorganic world can mean less than this.

Indeed, they must mean a great deal more. For this very mild form of teleology does not represent the individual and the environment as intimately interconnected. It leaves them isolated. It denies that the behaviour of the environment adapts itself to the immediate and ever changing needs of the individual, that the environment is ever helpful, ever ready to meet an emergency, while we know that the behaviour of the individual is adapted from moment to moment to its immediate and ever changing needs. Thus, no bio-centric teleology less thorough than that represented in the "Silly Symphonies" could save materialism.

Besides, we must reject even the modest teleology which attributes purpose to the properties of water. When our friend mentioned how good these are for living things we were reminded of the schoolboy who remarked during a geography lesson how well it had been arranged that a big river always flows through a city. He attributed purposiveness to the river just as our friend attributed purposiveness to the properties of water. The proper answer to the schoolboy is that the rivers were there before the towns. The happy conjunction of the two is not due to the purposiveness of the rivers but to the purposiveness of the men who built the towns. The same answer must be given to the bio-centric teleologist. The properties of water are older than any freshwater fish. If these properties are due to any purposiveness it must have been of a far-sighted character.

Our sense of proportion alone ought to make us suspicious of any form of bio-centric teleology. For the Universe is vast indeed. The corner in which living organisms eke out a precarious existence is but a minute fraction of the whole. This corner is confined to a region on or near the earth's surface. The earth is but a tiny speck in the solar system. Our sun is but one among millions in the galaxy and there are millions of galaxies.

If the laws of physics and chemistry have been devised in the spirit of hospitality, all we can say is that the work has been done badly. Most regions of space are so inhospitable that the hardiest organisms could not live there. For every law, principle or property of Matter which a bio-centric teleologist could describe as good, his opponent could mention a dozen which could by the same standard only be called bad. To those who claim, that the laws of physics and chemistry make for a world fit for organisms to live in we have to answer: "Yes, but only just".

The truth is that we have to regard Matter as neither benevolent nor malevolent but, with the eyes of the physicist, as indifferent. Life deals with Matter as it finds it and makes the best of the prevailing circumstances, just as those who build cities make the best of the geographical features which happen to occur in their country.

This is why, in spite of the views which have begun to permeate the thought of biologist-philosophers, we still isolate the individual and the environment, why we deny that each is adapted to the other as a lock is to its key and the key to its lock. We still believe that the individual is specifically adapted to its environment, but not that the environment has ever become or ever was specifically adapted to the needs of the individual. We still do not believe in any sort of more intimate interconnection between the two than that which men have always appreciated. We regard adaptation as a purely one-sided affair.

We say that one-way adaptation has caused the eyes of animals to be sensitive to light of the wavelength emitted by the sun: that one-way adaptation has caused their lungs to be suited to the proportion of oxygen to nitrogen found in the air; that one-way adaptation has caused their bones and muscles to be of just the strength needed on a planet with the mass of the earth. We know of no evidence which could support the view that the continued existence of living things is due to the purposiveness of the Material Universe.

Lest we have still failed to represent the new teleology fairly we will add that we also reject any and every conceivable theory which declares that it is in the nature of Matter unaided to manifest purpose of any kind whatever. In our view the materialist, progressive as he often is in the field of biology, returns to the Middle Ages with his theories about the nature of Matter.

In those days students of nature attributed to the laws of physics and chemistry as wide a range of varied purpose as it is possible to imagine. In addition to an anthropo-centric and a bio-centric teleology they believed in another form which was neither. For they thought that the purpose of many things was to serve some abstract idea. For instance, they said that the purpose of the mercury rising in a barometer was to fill a vacuum, because of the horror felt by nature at a vacuum. Celestial bodies were supposed to move in circles with the purpose of tracing out the most perfect path known to geometry. Nature was believed to adore a circle.

Possibly, if modern materialists specified the purposes which they attribute to lifeless Matter, we should find that these differed from the purposes which medieval scientists believed in. But they would be no more acceptable to the physicists and engineers of to-day.

An astronomer does not discuss what function in the solar system is performed by Saturn; he does not consider whether a better purpose would be served if the perihelion of Mercury did not advance quite so rapidly; he does not ask whether so many spots are good for the Sun. To the astronomer a solar system without Saturn would merely be a slightly different system equally interesting to study. For the physicist an atom which has lost one of its electrons is not to be regarded as having suffered a loss; it does not appear as something less fit to go on existing; it is not an incomplete organism; it is merely an ionized atom. If an atom of radium explodes it is not regarded as something which has died, but merely as something which has changed. We should think it no more than playfully fantastic to suggest that the rivers compensate the sea for its loss by evaporation or that the function of the clouds is to adjust the amount of water received by the rivers. If anything whatever in the untouched world of lifeless things changes, we neither consider that it is improved nor damaged. Put briefly, things do not happen in the inorganic world for any purpose; they just happen.

The engineer knows this just as well as the physicist. If a machine of his serves a purpose he knows that this has not been imposed by the Universe but by those who ordered the machine to be built. He knows that he cannot look for purposefulness in unaided Matter, for if he neglects his machinery it soon ceases to serve a purpose. The world of machinery, if left uncontrolled for long, would become like the physicist's world, a world in which things happen without function, purpose, adjustment or compensation. It would cease to be a world of machinery; it would become a world of scrap iron. Machinery does not work because nature has a horror of scrap iron, but because engineers have.

Something like the destruction of a machine occurs when a living body dies. The adjustments and compensations cease. Organs no longer serve their previous purposes. The body becomes part of the physicist's world, a collection of uncoordinated bits of matter. The analogy to a machine is no longer apt. An influence is at work in each individual which tries to avoid this. It is sometimes called the Will to Live, or the Instinct of Self-preservation. Were we to attribute it to a Universal Principle applicable to the whole of the Material Universe we should imply that nature has a horror of corpses. But no one would take this suggestion seriously. We can all agree that the Will to Live has a different origin. What it is, is a part of the problem of the nature of Life.

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